Five takeaways from USMNT romp over Panama

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Jozy Altidore silenced his critics, Paul Arriola made a strong case to remain a starter, and Bruce Arena saw his attacking gamble pay off vs. Panama

ORLANDO, Fla. — Hernan Dario Gomez didn't make excuses, not that he really could.

The Panamanian national team coach went into Friday's World Cup qualifier believing his team was just as good as the U.S., and it led him to think his Canaleros could stand toe-to-toe, and even attack the Americans rather than playing for a draw.

Gomez was wrong, painfully wrong.

What Panama found instead was an inspired U.S. attack that threw a speedy five-man barrage at Panama's defense, overwhelming the visitors and forcing Gomez to scramble to make changes simply to avoid a blowout. The blowout still came, and it served as the cost of underestimating the Americans.

"We found a rival immensely superior on the field of play," Gomez said after the 4-0 loss. "Before the game I didn’t think that. In the game they were superior in speed, in strength, in everything. In ability, in everything superior. They were excellent, and we had a very bad night. We were very bad, we looked ugly."

"At halftime we talked about keeping the score at 3-0, because we need the goal difference," Gomez said. "We didn’t have a good night, and our opponent was superior. We were lucky, because it was a game where we could have given up 10 goals.

Gomez's decision to pull winger Edgar Barcenas in the 26th minute with the score 2-0 surprised U.S. coach Bruce Arena, because Arena believed Barcenas was playing well, but the move had more to do with trying to prepare for a looming flood of U.S. goals than with anything Barcenas was doing wrong.

"I saw a blowout coming, the blowout was coming," Gomez said. "I put out a bad lineup, in the sense that I went too offensive and gave too much space to a very fast team, and we had too much trouble with them. So I said 'No, let me reconfigure this because we’re going to give up six goals,' so I added another player in the midfield."

The change didn't matter much because it didn't alter the reality that Panama's center back tandem of Felipe Baloy and Roman Torres couldn't deal with the U.S. forwards. By the time Gomez pulled a slow and overmatched Baloy at halftime, the score was already 3-0.

As much as Gomez tried falling on his sword after the match, and take all the blame for Friday's blowout loss, the reality is no matter how Panama had set up the U.S. would have had success given the way the American attack approached the crucial qualifier. They didn't let the pressure of the stakes get to them, they attacked as a group, playing confidently and with as much quality as we have seen from this U.S. attack in a long time.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the big U.S. win:


ALTIDORE QUIETS CRITICS


Jozy Altidore USA Panama

Jozy Altidore could have chosen to unleash a powerful blast of a penalty kick as he stepped up to the spot on Friday night, but chose instead to gently strike a perfect Panenka penalty right down the middle. It was a gutsy display of confidence, and a clear message of just how good he was feeling after delivering two goals and an assist in 43 minutes. He ran toward the Orlando City Stadium crowd and raised both arms with a look on his face that screamed "Is that good enough"?

Altidore has been a popular target for criticism for much of his national team career, and while he has been far from perfect as a national team striker, he has also managed to fashion one of the best careers in U.S. history. Friday's man of the match performance left him tied with Clint Dempsey for most career World Cup qualifying goals (18), and tied for second in World Cup qualifying assists (7).

Altidore's passing was particularly sharp on Friday, as he successfully took advantage of his teammate's good runs, and Panama's slow defense, to set up some excellent passes to spring teammates, including Christian Pulisic, who ran onto an excellent Altidore pass to race in and score the eighth-minute opener.

“That’s one of Jozy’s best qualities," Pulisic said. "He scores goals, but he’s a great passer, and he knows where I am, he knows where everyone is, so he’s a great guy to play with.”

Altidore has always been a player who thrives alongside dynamic midfield options. It's what he had when he enjoyed a career year with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, and it is why he has enjoyed considerable success with a stacked Toronto FC side.

Perhaps no U.S. player has benefited more from Pulisic's emergence than Altidore, who has all the qualities to partner well with a player with Pulisic's abilities. That is why when they are playing well together, the U.S. can blow away CONCACAF opponents, as they did in March against Honduras, and once again on Friday against Panama.

"This game is an easy game when you play with good players, and he’s a quality, quality player," Altidore said of Pulisic. "For such a young kid, he gets it. Every time I play with him you can see he keeps improving every game. The hope is for him to keep working, keep improving, and he as such a bright future ahead of him."

So does the U.S. with an in-form Altidore, who should be able to convert critics if he continues to play well, and finds the consistency that has at times eluded him with the national team.


PULISIC EVOLVING AS A PLAYMAKER


Christian Pulisic USA Panama

Back in June both Bruce Arena and Landon Donovan questioned whether Christian Pulisic was playmaker in the traditional sense, with the suggestion being that his strengths made him better suited to be a winger who goes at fullbacks and cuts inside to wreak havoc.

Pulisic's performance on Friday offered the latest evidence that Pulisic can indeed thrive as the team's attacking midfielder. His ability to go at the heart of the defense, and make incisive passes caused problems for Panama all night, shredding a defense that had been stingy throughout the Hex.

"With Christian playing in the hole like that he’s able to just sniff stuff out and I thought he was the difference," Altidore said. "He was able to just disrupt them in so many ways and you saw the difference he can make in the middle of the park, being able to go each way, and being able to be so dynamic, so I thought that was a big plus for us."

Arena has alternated between playing Pulisic centrally at home, while deploying him on the right wing on the road, where poor playing fields and lax CONCACAF officiating can lead to a sloppier and more hazardous path through the middle. On Friday, we saw Pulisic work the middle, as well as the flanks, taking advantage of the smart movement of Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola to leave Panama chasing shadows.

Can that work against better opponents who are more well-equipped to deal with his marauding runs through the middle? That remains to be seen, but Friday's performance showed us a player extremely comfortable working through the middle, and an attack that can get the most out of his qualities in that role.


ARRIOLA STAKING CLAIM TO STARTING ROLE


Paul Arriola USA Panama

When Bruce Arena was asked on Thursday who benefited the most from his decision to leave Fabian Johnson off the October roster for qualifying, he didn't have an answer. Paul Arriola gave the answer for him on Friday with his latest strong showing as a starter.

The D.C. United winger showed off both his speed, tenacity and impressive engine holding down the right flank and forming an effective partnership with DeAndre Yedlin.

"His speed, his ability to press, his ability to get out on the break, and his ability to play at that pace for 90 minutes," Arena said when asked why Arriola got the starting nod. "He's got quite an engine. As he continues to develop and he gets a little cleaner on the ball, he's going to reward himself a little bit with a goal and an assist every now and then, but his work rate was outstanding."

"He takes so much pressure off of me," Yedlin said of his partnership with Arriola. "He's always listening to me. If I want him inside, he's going inside. If I want him outside, he's going outside. He'll work back and track the outside back, which is massive.

"You don't find a lot of wingers like that nowadays because all they want to do is  attack, attack, attack," Yedlin said. "He knows his role and he knows he has to be an engine in front."

Arena has developed a real trust in Arriola's ability, as evidenced by his decision to start the inexperienced Arriola in the qualifier against Mexico in Mexico City, and then in the Gold Cup final. Friday's showing against Panama should keep Arriola in the lineup going forward, which will make it that much tougher for Fabian Johnson to find his way back into the squad.


ARENA'S ATTACKING GAMBLE PAID OFF


Bruce Arena USA 10072017

Bruce Arena knew what Panama's counterattack was capable, having seen it cause problems for the U.S. during the Gold Cup. That still didn't stop him from deploying a very attack-minded 4-4-2 diamond formation and throwing a five-man attacking front at a Panama defense that had allowed just five goals in eight previous Hex matches.

Was it a gamble?

"Yes, it was," Arena said when asked that question. "We wanted to push five players forward in the attack as aggressively as we could. The way Panama plays, we could afford to do that.

"We wanted to press them early, get out on the break and get after their backline," Arena said. "On the night, we actually didn't finish well. We could have scored a lot more goals. In the second half, we could have been a little bit better in our possession and made it a little bit harder for Panama, but tonight was a good night."

As much as Panama's coach wanted to blame himself for bad decisions leading to the blowout result, Arena clearly deserves credit for once again making the kind of moves to leave an opponent scrambling as his team carried out a flawless game plan.

"In all my years with the national team I don’t think I’ve ever been this prepared," Altidore said. "The coaching staff from Sunday, since the guys landed, were showing video, pulling guys aside, making sure we were prepared for this game. They made us understand how important the game was.

"Kudos to Bruce and his team for preparing everybody. At the end of the day the players have to go out and do it, but I thought we were very well prepared today."


BRADLEY EXCELS AS THE MIDFIELD ANCHOR


Michael Bradley USA 10062017

Being asked to work as the lone defensive midfield in the 4-4-2 diamond setup is no easy task, but Michael Bradley held it down once again, freeing up the U.S. attack to go at Panama with full force.

His performance didn't draw much attention on a night where the attacking stars grabbed all the headlines, but his work in the middle, linking the defense to the attack and racing all over the field to thwart Panamanian threats served as the latest piece of evidence that he is capable of handling that role.

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The question remains whether Bradley can do that heavy lifting against elite teams, or if Arena will have to figure out a way to provide an extra player in midfielder, either by going with a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 setup, or by playing with one forward. Bradley is a strong midfielder, but he may be left with too much to do against elite teams who have the skilled playmakers to deliver killer passes in a wide space Bradley will be trying to cover on his own.

Of course, having wingers like Nagbe and Arriola provide defensive support makes the diamond a more tenable option, but Arena will be sure to work on testing that system against tough opponents leading up to the World Cup. The U.S. also needs a center back tandem to settle in and develop as a strong unit, which would also lesson the burden on Bradley playing as a lone defensive midfielder. Arena will be hoping John Brooks can get healthy, and he can get the Brooks-Geoff Cameron tandem back together, because we saw at the Copa America that it is the best possible pairing.

Bradley has clearly embraced the role in recent years, as his penchant for floating into the attack dissipating with time and experience. It is also easier for Bradley to stay home in a deep role when the U.S. attack is creating chances the way it showed on Friday it can.

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